Salmon and caribou resolutions, mental health discussions featured at 2022 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering

·5 min read
Attendees of the 2022 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, hold a Gwich'in Nation flag at the gathering's opening ceremony on July 18. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
Attendees of the 2022 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, hold a Gwich'in Nation flag at the gathering's opening ceremony on July 18. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

The 2022 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering saw people travel to Old Crow, Yukon for a week of discussions and celebrations.

While typically held every other year in a community in Alaska, the Northwest Territories or the Yukon, the 2022 gathering was the first one in four years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're doing something that the United States, that Canada, and no other nation I know of does — getting together and thinking and being a nation together," Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said.

"That is so sacred, because as we're walking into new times with caribou, with salmon, our health and wellness. If we, as Gwich'in, do not decide where we are going in light of these challenges, then other nations will decide that for us. It is not up to any other nation but our own, and our people."

Here are some key developments.

Renewal of resolution to protect Porcupine caribou herd

Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC

Attendees passed a renewed resolution to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

The resolution was originally passed at the first Gwich'in Gathering in 1988 and demands the permanent protection of the coastal plain, or the 1002 area, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), where Porcupine caribou migrate every year to give birth and raise their young.

The herd is sacred for many Gwich'in, who often refer to themselves as caribou people.

The fight to protect the area took on an extra sense of urgency in 2017, when the U.S. Congress passed a tax bill that opened up ANWR's coastal plain to oil and gas extraction. Drilling leases were granted in early 2021, but President Joe Biden put a temporary moratorium on exploration after coming into power.

While Gwich'in have previously reaffirmed the caribou resolution, the 2022 gathering also saw updates to the document's wording, including the addition of a section touching on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

New Chinook salmon resolution

Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC

Gathering attendees passed a resolution to protect the relationship between Gwich'in and Chinook salmon, or Łùk Choo. It essentially elevates Chinook salmon to the same level of importance as caribou for Gwich'in, and comes as the Yukon River and its tributaries — including the Porcupine River, which runs by Old Crow — see the worst-ever Chinook run on record.

The document acknowledges, among other things, that Chinook are a "keystone species for a health ecosystem feeding all forms of life" and are a "provider of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health and well-being for Gwich'in." It also commits Gwich'in Nation to "undertake all steps necessary to manage and steward Łùk Choo throughout our homelands" and to restore Chinook populations and their habitat through Gwich'in-led stewardship.

Attendees shared stories about the impact of declining salmon runs and debated the wording of the resolution over the course of two days, making it the most substantially-discussed topic of the gathering.

"My grandchildren are from Teslin, Yukon. They're Tlingit … They're salmon people. My grandchildren have never been to a salmon camp in their traditional territory," Lorraine Netro said through tears.

Others, like Brandon Kyikavichik, called for firmer measures, like only allowing Indigenous people to fish and putting an end to practices like commercial ocean trawling.

"We have not been doing enough for the salmon," he said.

"If we don't do what needs to be done … it's over, that's it, say bye bye to the salmon, and all those years that we spent coming to these meetings begging and pleading will just be for naught.

"I know I paint a pretty dark and grim picture and every time we come to these salmon meetings it's dark and grim, but it's dark and grim. I'm not going to sugar-coat it."

Tizya-Tramm later told CBC, like the caribou resolution, the salmon resolution can be brought to meetings with Canadian and U.S. officials as an advocacy tool.

Addressing mental health, drug crisis

Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC

Mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide quickly became prominent topics of discussion.

While a session on mental wellness and the impact of the opioid overdose crisis was initially scheduled for later in the week, it was moved up to the first full day of the gathering after attendees repeatedly brought up the subjects during comment periods.

"Fighting for the caribou, fighting for the salmon, that's all great and we're doing great work on that part, but if we're not looking after our people, what is all that work for?" Charyl Charlie, director of education with the Vuntut Gwitchin, asked.

A number of people shared stories about their own struggles with addiction, mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, homelessness, loss, lateral violence and abuse, with several calling for a healing or wellness summit.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but we've never ever had a wellness workshop in Old Crow and I think it was needed 20 years ago," Joe Tetlichi said during an open discussion.
 
"We're coming to a place now where mental health is a big issue. We're seeing a lot in the world today, how is that affecting the young people? I think we really need to look at that."

There were also calls to listen to, respect and create space for Gwich'in youth.

"You see a lot of hardships, you see a lot of the trauma still trickling within our generation," Western Arctic Youth Collective (WAYC) project director Alyssa Carpenter told CBC in an interview.

WAYC was in Old Crow to support youth at the gathering, which included organizing separate activities for youth and encouraging them to participate in the larger discussions.

"I think youth want to talk about addictions, they want to talk about the impact and loss due to suicide or loss in general, and not just physical loss but loss of relationships with people, or loss of connection to culture and identity," Carpenter said.

"There's lots of things — it's complex but it's very interconnected."

Gwich'in Nation Accord

The accord, approved by attendees on the final full day of the gathering, unifies Gwich'in from across the North on eight joint priorities and how to address them.

Jackie Hong/CBC News
Jackie Hong/CBC News
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC
Jackie Hong/CBC

The 2024 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering will be hosted in Alaska.

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